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Unknown Pleasures: 10 lower-profile new Steam games

Wheat from chaff

Featured post fishing for GOLD

New feature! There are more new PC games released each week than any one human could realistically play, and while we try to zero in on the most interesting, many lovely things inevitably fall through the cracks. So here’s the deal: each week, I browse the teeming ranks of Steam (we’ll also be including itch.io a little later, incidentally) for ten likely prospects released within the past seven days. I play each for ten minutes, then decide whether or not I’d like to keep playing them. It’s not a review, but it is, but it isn’t, but maybe? In any case: new games for good people. That’s you, that is.

Update: this piece now includes (as it will every time henceforth) my Pick Of The Week from the ten games included.
In fact I play more than ten games each week, and investigate many more still, but some are discarded due to technical faults, some because they have not truly begun in earnest after ten minutes, and many because I love you too much to make you share my pain. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be any badduns in here, as in some cases I want to talk about something that I felt disappointed by – just that the real rot is filtered out at source. I don’t distinguish between ‘full’ release and early access unless a game is patently in a barely playable state, for what it’s worth, but I am going to exclude VR games, as currently they’re only relevant to a tiny fraction of you.

This week, I chose…

Caveblazers

Spelunky vs Diablo, in a game that feels tailor-made for the Twitch crowd. Cave systems full of baddies, treasure and platforming, but with a strong emphasis on fighting and being showered with oddball power-ups – in that, it feels a little like the Binding Of Isaac. It has a neat ranged weapon system that involves simply nudging the right thumbstick in the direction you want to fire, which means you can be firing one way while stabbing in another. The first-ever game in this feature, and already I had to fight down the urge to keep playing once ten minutes had expired, which I guess is a seal of approval for Caveblazers. (We’ll have a full review of this shortly! –Ed)

MidBoss

Kirby as roguelike – a turn-based, isometric dungeon game in which you gain new abilities by possessing your enemies, be they fantasy tropes like giant rats and bats or oddball creatures such as magic floating shields. Very charming, and the innate tension between staying alive and taking risks in the hope of possessing something new definitely gives MidBoss a distinct personality. Also: the shopkeeper is a cat who only accepts yarn as currency. MidBoss is perhaps needlessly over-complicated in some respects, and the UI’s a bit of a mess, but I’m definitely down for more of this.

50 Years

Bills itself as “cofeebreak turn-based strategy”, which I suspect is only true if you drink coffee by the gallon, but certainly 50 years is an ultra-lean take on build’n’bash. It does it by blending fantasy battles with clicker/idle game mentality – most of your time is spent on a menu screen, choosing what units or buildings to best spend resources that accrue each turn on. Efficiency is all, but to some extent it’s just a matter of waiting until the numbers get big enough to buy a new tier of stuff. In between this, hand drawnish battles are auto-resolved based on how many units you and the enemy field. Simple but compulsive, and offers a rapid sense of accomplishment. But although I might well spend a lunchtime or two with 50 Years, I don’t get the sense that it will stand up to much more than that.

Dragon Wars

A re-release of a 1989 Interplay game, from their early Wasteland and Bard’s Tale days – and which, in fact, was fully intended to be Bard’s Tale IV until relatively close to release. It’s a first-person, party-based RPG set in maze-like environments which, alas, feels entirely unexceptional by today’s standards, although it’s fairly tight for what it is. You’ll probably need to draw your own maps to keep track of your movements, which is quietly pleasing. The EGA graphics are a nostalgic hoot too. Don’t think I’ll stick with it, but I’m happy to see Steam’s ancient history archives filling up.

Mind Cubes – Inside the Twisted Gravity Puzzle

This is exactly the sort of thing we’d have gotten Quite Excited about back in 2008 or so – a 2D physics-puzzle-platformer with a twist, that being that you have to twist the screen through 90 degree rotations in order to safely navigate a spike-filled room. I found that the short levels strike a comfortable balance between hazardous and intuitive, and yeah, I’ll keep it around to tackle another room whenever I need one of my thrice-hourly writing breaks. The controls are oddly mushy though, and the inability to control your (rabbit-like) character’s angle of descent when flipping the screen causes it to fall downwards is mildly infuriating. All told: competent but very familiar puzzling, and a reasonably solid lunchbreak game.

Putrefaction 2: Void Walker

I KNOW, I KNOW. A name to run a mile from, but a clutch of positive Steam reviews compelled me to take a look despite my better nature. And, whaddaya know? This is a surprisingly OK Unity-powered first-person shooter. Don’t get me wrong, it immediately smacked me in the face with egregiously low-rent presentation, as what I am reasonably confident is one Eastern European gentleman speaking endlessly long and painful English lines for both participants of a conversation about nothing, with terrible jokes adding insult to injury.

Once that’s out the way, it’s a bit Doom and a bit Serious Sam, shooting hordes of baddies who look like The Yellow King in large and passably attractive places. The shooting is genuinely solid – heck, you can even blow individual limbs off, which is always a good time. Desperately needs new writing and new voiceover, not to mention a completely different name, but I’ve played much worse shooters from much larger studios in my time – and, crucially, I felt a bit grumpy when the ten minute timer went off.

Balthazar’s Dream

Did I say ten minutes? Silly me, of course I meant four. Look, while by and large I want this piece to constitute recommendations, I think covering a few stinkers to give a sense of the ebb and flow of Steam is worthwhile too. Case in point Balthazar’s Dream, a cod-16-bit platformer starring a dog whose owner may or may not be a ghost. I was attracted by the Amiga-esque art, and doubly by so by the option to choose which breed your dog is, but sadly the reality was an archetypal jump and fail game that wasted no time in being tiresomely obvious and joylessly exacting. If you believe the 90s Ocean games remain a high watermark of platforming perhaps you’ll derive something from this – it’s not actually incompetent at what it does – but for me it’s a stark statement that pixel art + retro mechanics alone do not a golden age make.

Dragon Bros

Another wince-worthy name, but what we actually get is a Metal Slug-style side-scrolling 2D shooter whose propensity for colourful excess lends it just a touch of the Vlambeers. It’s not doing anything enormously out of the ordinary, and doesn’t truly do anything with the fact that it stars a dragon with a gun, but it’s very well put-together – and happy to drop ridiculous enemy numbers, over-powered weapons and slick dexterity challenges on you pretty much from the get-go. The opposite of Balthazar’s Dream above, in that it takes retro values and infuses them with verve rather than merely goes through the motions. Oh, I should mention that it’s also got a co-op mode that I was not able to squeeze inside my ten minutes.

Ophidia

Already featured in Free Loaders late last year, but now on Steam with a modest (and deserved) pricetag and extra modes. It’s Snake with a Nordic myth skin and a more dream-like atmosphere – focused less on the tense avoidance of your own tail and more on the active pursuit of it, as closing a circle around the various beautifully-illustrated wildlife captures them, causing you to grow. Get big enough and you can circle a ‘boss’ creature to complete the level. Different creatures require different strategies, and in this it reminds me of the wonderful Spider: The Secret Of Bryce Manor – puzzle-solving is very much about learning behaviours rather than lateral thinking. Tranquil and pretty, and definitely one I’ll stick with.

Lock’s Quest

Gameboy Advance (best-ever Nintendo system: fight me)-style JRPG meets tower defence game. It’s ever so slightly like Orcs Must Die, in that your character fights in tandem with your various turrets, although this has discrete build and combat phases. It’s a fascinating and surprisingly natural mix – where JRPGs so often do little with space during combat, this is all about using the battlefield to your advantage, and as such it could avoid the numbing repetition that many traditional JRPGs are known for. All that said, it is guilty of the numbing run-on text that many traditional JPRGs are known for, so I wasn’t able to see many battles during my brief time with it. My strong sense is that it’s onto something, and could well be a successful hybrid of disparate genres. I’ve always enjoyed tower defence, but the straight level-based structure does get old – placing it within a flowing campaign is an appealing idea for sure.

So that’s the ten games – and something else I’m going to do each week is pick one stand-out favourite. This week it’s….

MidBoss!

I liked this a lot. It would benefit hugely from a UI overhaul and some streaming of its more advanced mechanics, but it’s really onto something with its shapeshifting/possession concept. Having your character ever-evolve rather than simply slowly improve is a refreshing take on dungeoneering, and MidBoss is extremely personable game to boot. I will definitely be returning to it.

More next week – covering games released from today onward. If you want to leave tips for anything you dig during the seven days to come below, I can certainly check ’em out.

(And yes, I realise that, long, long ago, we used ‘Unknown Pleasures’ as a title for a series of IGF interviews, but if the cap fits…)

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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